The War Beat, Pacific: How the US News Media Went to War with Japan


Steven casey is professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His books include Cautious crusade (OUP, 2001) Selling the Korean War (OUP, 2008), which won the Harry S. Truman Book Prize, When the soldiers fall (OUP, 2014), which won the Neustadt Prize, and The War Beat, Europe (OUP, 2017) which won the American Journalism Historians Association Book of the Year award. The War Beat, Pacific is published by OUP in May 2021.

Journalists observe the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri, in Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945. Image from William Courtenay

Even the simplest glimpse of what had happened was enough to transform America.

News of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor broke right after lunch on the East Coast. Within minutes, mayors had placed their cities on a war footing, FBI agents were rounding up Japanese Americans, and tearful families were gathering at stations and bus depots as soldiers and sailors, their canceled holidays, gone to fight. In Congress the next day, every lawmaker but one voted to declare war, while Republican leaders pledged to defer policy “for the duration.” An opinion poll found that the country was “deeply resentful of the betrayal”. Another concluded that “commentators of all political stripes agree that the first Japanese bomb dropped on Hawaii suddenly brought about the miracle that no logic or persuasion had been able to achieve before”, making the isolationism “the first victim of war”.

Yet the Americans had received surprisingly little information about what had transpired in Hawaii on Sunday, December 7, 1941. In the early afternoon, the Department of the Navy had instructed officers to “enforce the censorship. naval ”. As a result of the order, a reporter had a news alert cut off halfway through transmission – although like other members of the US press scattered across the Pacific, he initially didn’t mind. These correspondents recognized the extreme importance of denying operational information, including the number of ships sunk on the battlefield, to the marauding Japanese enemy. It was only over time, as the Navy persisted in its policy of ultra-strict censorship, that their frustration increased, especially once the military’s concerted efforts to control the flow of information were overwhelmed. been made worse by other problems.

Getting closer to the battlefield presented the first challenge. A sea voyage offered an uninviting mix of long periods of boredom on an alcohol-free ship, punctuated by short bursts of terror whenever someone spotted an enemy plane or submarine. Air travel could be infinitely worse. Some of the planes used by the military to transport men to islands like New Guinea and Guadalcanal were unreliable. The correspondents who boarded them knew they were taking their lives in hand, even if their plane managed to miss the terrible tropical turbulence which, as noted, made the sky “rough and solid as an angry sea.” “. Once safe on the ground, the climate was another ordeal, from the vicious heat and humidity of summer to torrential downpours during the rainy season. And then there were the many unsavory aspects of jungle life: “Spiders as big as saucers.” . . “Observed a correspondent in New Guinea,” butterflies as big as birds, bugs like flashlights. Mosquitoes were the biggest threat of all because they spread malaria; but other nasty diseases have also taken their toll, including dysentery, dengue fever and ‘jungle rot’.

Correspondents who were able to witness the fighting had to overcome a new set of obstacles. “Stories,” one remarked, “had to be flown back to Pearl Harbor, Australia, or over long distances to ships far enough away from the sea. [enemy] to break radio silence before they can be transmitted. Often planes weren’t immediately available for this courier service, “so” it was usually only a matter of days before items reached the United States and were published. Even so, editors often found the Pacific War less interesting than other theaters, much to the chagrin of correspondents who risked their necks to report it. A Time The Solomon Islands journalist in 1943 was so angry when he found out that his magazine had cut his story to make room for “a new batch of photos from the Russian war” that he sent a cable to his editors. to protest against “sorry Time treatment. “A correspondent who covered the bloody invasion of Saipan in the summer of 1944 was equally upset when he found out how his reports had assessed, protesting that they had been placed a” very bad fourth “, far behind the D-Day invasion of Normandy and the Republican National Convention.

This feeling of neglect was a surprisingly common refrain throughout much of the war. On one occasion in late 1942, Hanson Baldwin of New York Times became so frustrated that he claimed that the Pacific War had become “the” unknown war. ” It was an exaggeration. Even at times when military censorship was too strict, or when editors were concerned about events elsewhere, the home front generally received basic information about the fight against Japan.

As the war progressed, the situation also began to improve. In 1943 and 1944, the Army and Navy made a conscious effort to lift the veil that had descended on the Pacific War. In fact, the two services engaged in a dynamic rivalry, as one, then the other, attempted to grab most of the headlines. Douglas MacArthur invariably took the lead, pushing his PROs to devise new methods to speed up the flow of stories about his numerous invasions in New Guinea and then in the Philippines in 1943 and 1944. The climax came with the liberation of Luzon in January 1945, when MacArthur’s officers established a “floating press seat on three small ships.” . . whereby correspondents, PROs, censors, and a transmission facility were able to move right behind the assault waves and start operating immediately. The Navy eventually responded, so during the Battle for Iwo Jima in February 1945 it had the ability to send both dispatches and photographs to America in time for publication on the same day – an innovation the press took. hailed as “among the miracles of modernity.” transmission.”

As the war drew to its murderous conclusion, not all the stories were reported in so much detail. When the Japanese decided to take over all the streets of Manila, resulting in the deaths of over 100,000 civilians, MacArthur was reluctant to draw attention to this aspect of his return to the Philippines. The Navy, meanwhile, remained wary of publishing news about suicide bombers, not wanting the Japanese to know how much damage their suicide pilots were inflicting. Navy censors even blocked the publication of a major article on suicide bombers until September 2, 1945, when, as the correspondent who wrote it, “he could not hope to compete with the signing of the surrender aboard the [USS] Missouri. “

More than three hundred correspondents, broadcasters and photographers gathered to record this award ceremony, which in fact, as one journalist noted, [story] of war in all theaters. It was certainly a stark contrast to the first three years of the Pacific War, when Americans received surprisingly little battlefield information about some of the most important and controversial events of Pearl Harbor and the march from the death of Bataan to the heroism of the Marines on Guadalcanal. In this period, the Pacific had been “the enveloped war”.

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